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Georgia’s murky ‘transparency’ bill The ‘foreign agent’ draft law that sparked mass protests in Tbilisi was presented as a solution to the country’s lack of transparency, but the legislation’s real goals are themselves opaque
Last week, the Republic of Georgia found itself on the cusp of adopting a new law for “transparency in foreign influence,” more commonly referred to as a “foreign agent” law, and widely believed to be modeled on Russia’s repressive legislation. If passed, the bill would have required the media and NGOs even partly financed from abroad to register as “agents of foreign influence.” It would also have compromised Georgia’s entry into the E.U. and NATO. Intensive protests in Tbilisi finally forced Georgia’s ruling party, Georgian Dream, to back down in trying to push the bill through the parliament. Nevertheless, the activities of the majority party and its derivative movement, People’s Power, are unlikely to stop at this failed initiative. Meduza’s correspondent Diana Shanava reports from Tbilisi.
A ‘transparency’ bill with murky origins
In June 2022, three deputies left Georgian Dream, the Republic of Georgia majority parliamentary party, explaining that they’d like to “talk to each other more.” By October, they announced that they had founded a new political movement, christened “People’s Power.” Shortly afterwards, the new movement’s founders — Dimitri Khundadze, Sozar Subari, and Mikheil Kavelashvili — were joined by five more former Georgian Dream legislators.
Since its inception in 2012, Georgian Dream had been the main competitor to Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement, while claiming a largely similar agenda: restoring Georgia’s territorial integrity, popularizing Western values, and hastening integration into the E.U. and NATO. At the same time, Georgian Dream actively strove to improve the country’s relations with Russia. Under the leadership of the ultra-rich Bidzina Ivanishvili (who became the party’s chairman in 2018), Georgian Dream began to interact with Moscow on policy questions, resumed transportation across the border between the two states, and renewed Georgian wine exports to Russia.
Georgian Dream denies taking any part in the creation of People’s Power. At the same time, it makes no secret of sharing many of its policy views. Meanwhile, People’s Power presents itself as an opposition force whose aim is to stop Georgia’s kowtowing to the United States that Georgian Dream allegedly couldn’t stop. Its second professed aim is to achieve a greater degree of transparency in Georgian politics.
Crucially, since the founders of People’s Power did not forfeit their legislative mandates when leaving Georgian Dream, they have kept their right to submit bills for consideration by the Georgian parliament.
On February 14 this year, People’s Power submitted a draft bill on “transparency in foreign influence,” proposing the creation of a “foreign agent” register for non-profits and media that receive more than a fifth of their funding from abroad. Being on the register would require these organizations to submit financial statements to a special authority, the National Agency of Public Registry (NAPR). The agency would also maintain and update the “foreign agent” list. Evading registration would entail fines, roughly equal to $4,000–$7,600.
It’s all about choices, or is it not?
People’s Power and the bill’s proponents have repeatedly stressed that the point of the draft legislation was to “inform” the public about “foreign influence,” as opposed to infringing on the media and NGOs. They also tried to normalize the bill by comparing it to the U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), claiming that the Georgian bill was a much softer version of the American legislation, adapted to suit the country’s transparency needs.
Adopted in 1938 to curb the Nazi propaganda and signed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt, FARA requires “foreign agents” (that is, entities representing the political or quasi-political interests of another state) to keep the state informed about their finances and their relations with foreign governments. FARA defines “foreign agents” as individuals and organizations receiving all of their financing, or the bulk of it, from abroad. Neglecting to register as a foreign agent can potentially lead to fines of up to $10,000, or up to five years in prison. FARA also requires that propaganda materials published by a foreign agent be marked accordingly. In practice, though, no one complies with this requirement. As of November 2022, the U.S. had more than 500 registered “foreign agents.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price has been skeptical about comparisons between the Georgian “foreign agent” bill and FARA, saying that the former was styled not so much after FARA as after the Russian and Hungarian foreign agent laws. People’s Power parried his criticisms by pointing out that, unlike FARA, the proposed bill didn’t use “rude” and stigmatizing language: instead of the term “foreign agent,” the Georgian bill talked civilly about “agents of foreign influence.” It also limited foreign agency to corporations and had no provisions for prison time in case of non-compliance. As if to drive the point home, on February 22, People’s Power unveiled an alternative, “American” version of the bill, which expanded the scope of foreign agency to individuals and introduced prison terms as a possible penalty for non-compliance. Labeled “the Georgian version” and “the American version,” the two variants of the bill were presented to the parliament, framing the debate as a “choice” between one and the other.
On February 27, the head of Georgian Dream, Irakli Kobakhidze, declared that the party was intent on approving both versions of the foreign agent bill in the first reading. The party’s further plan was to pass the draft legislation to the Venice Commission, asking it simply to pick the preferable version as the basis for its feedback. At the same time, Kobakhidze stressed that, as an advisory body, the Venice Commission had no power to stop Georgia from adopting the law in one version or another.
Georgia’s constitution and the country’s future
The irony of the “foreign agent” bill widely criticized for its “pro-Russian” agenda is that it’s been completely opaque about the foreign influences that helped conceive it. Amid accusations that, by compromising Georgia’s entry into the E.U. and NATO, the bill would serve Russia’s geopolitical interests, the bill’s champions denied any cognizance of why the draft law should be associated with the Kremlin’s influence. Georgian Dream Secretary and Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze, for example, objected to parallels with Russian legislation, instead highlighting the bill’s similarity to FARA:
The draft law is trailing this talk about how it’s a Russian bill. In reality, no one has explained why it’s Russian, and why it isn’t American, for example. If this works so well in the U.S., why can’t we try this out in Georgia? Why should it be a bad law?
Going even further, parliamentary speaker Shalva Papuashvili called criticism of the bill “anti-democratic.” “Certain groups,” he said, referring to the opposition parties objecting to the bill, “wish to make it taboo to talk about the need for transparency and accountability in Georgia. I have always said, and continue to say, that our citizens have a right to know the people who make public decisions and [access] information about them, be it financial or any other kind.”
But others, notably President Salome Zurabishvili, believed it was, in fact, the “foreign agent” bill that would compromise Georgia’s democratic future. When the parliamentary deputy Mikheil Kavelashvili suggested that “joining the E.U. is not an end in itself for Georgia,” the head of state reminded the bill’s proponents that the goals of joining the E.U. and NATO were, in fact, written directly into the country’s Constitution. “The activities of political parties that go against the Constitution, and the path elected by our country and its population, must be declared unconstitutional and banned,” said Zurabishvili.
A parliamentary fist-fight and street protests
On February 29, sixty-three Georgian media organizations, including the popular publications Netgazeti, Studio Monitor, Tabula, and Civil Georgia, promised in a joint statement to refuse to register as “agents of foreign influence”:
We categorically oppose the parliamentary majority’s initiative to pass a Russian-style law on ‘agents of foreign influence.’ We are not going to work under that label, and we refuse to register as ‘agents of foreign influence.’ This is an insult to our professional dignity.
Georgian NGOs also attacked the bill as “undemocratic, anti-constitutional, limiting to human rights, and discriminatory with regard to public organizations and the media,” in the words of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, warning that the very possibility of proposing the bill hurts Georgia’s European prospects, since the draft law jeopardizes two different points of the European Commission’s recommendations for Georgia, en route to E.U. membership. Two of the European Commission’s recommendations for Georgia in particular would be compromised by the “foreign agent” legislation: namely, the expectation that Georgia should make more of an effort to foster a pluralistic free media environment, and that it should also involve civil society at all decision-making levels in the country.
On March 2, the Georgian parliament’s committees for External Relations and Security began deliberating on the draft legislation. While this happened, protesters gathered outside the parliament on Rustaveli Prospect. Inside the parliament building itself, opponents of the bill whistled scornfully at the sight of its initiators.
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The noise coming from the outside disrupted the committee hearing on the bill, which had to start over. In his opening remarks, International Relations Committee chairman Nikoloz Samkharadze called those who interfered with the hearing “savages.” Opponents of the bill, in turn, said they wouldn’t permit a parliamentary discussion of a “Russian” law. A fist-fight then broke out in the parliament. When the security forcibly removed members of the Strategy Aghmashenebeli party and of the Saakashvili-founded National Movement from the chamber, Strategy Aghmashenebeli founder Giorgi Vashadze called on all the bill’s opponents to join the protests outside the parliament that evening.
The protest started at 6 p.m. Activists and members of the political opposition blocked both entrances to the parliament building, chanting: “No to the Russian law!” and “Slaves!” The police arrested several protesters, and other demonstrators soon tried to stop a police car carrying detainees. Fighting broke out between protesters and the police. By the end of the day, 36 people had been arrested, including several journalists (though interfering with the work of the media is itself a crime in Georgia).
From foreign agents to national ‘dignity’
In the wake of the protests, Georgian Dream desisted on trying to push the bill through the approval process. Yet, days afterwards, as protests subsided, the party’s Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze once again accused the bill’s opponents of slavishly kowtowing to the West, and of having revealed themselves as foreign agents, even without having to register. In his remarks, Kobakhidze proclaimed the unpopular draft law a real success in effecting transparency by exposing foreign influence, even without taking effect as law. “Society is now better able to distinguish agents of foreign influence from agents of people’s influence,” he said. Georgian Dream, he said, believes that “membership in the European Union is not possible at the expense of dignity and independence, of kowtowing to others; it is only possible if we preserve our dignity and independence.”
How Georgian Dream now plans to ascertain the Georgians’ “dignity and independence” is yet to be seen, but the party’s struggle against the opposition, and particularly against Georgia’s National Movement, is clearly far from over.
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